Only days after news of a wholesale army reshuffle in Burma broke, DVB caught up with Aung Lynn Htut, a former senior intelligence officer in Burma’s defence ministry and once the country’s second-ranking diplomat in the United States. The reshuffle has included the retirement from the military of Burma’s top three generals, Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Shwe Mann: observers say it is a key step in the junta’s long-term goal of holding on to power, with the top brass now able to participate in elections slated for 7 November.
What do you make of the news of an army reshuffle?
As far as I know, there has been no official order by the Office of the Military Appointment General for the reappointments of the senior generals, Than Shwe and Maung Aye, as there has for General Shwe Mann. It would be interesting to see who will sign the order [for Than Shwe and Maung Aye]. But I think the information is quite accurate.
Senior General Than Shwe has been facing pressure internationally and domestically regarding the nuclear plan as well as the alleged nuclear missile collaboration with North Korea. What made it worse for him is the war crimes inquiry being pushed for by [UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea] Quintana which gained support even from the US. This is so far the strongest wave of pressure from the international community. Also the UN is to start its assembly in September so [the reshuffling] will create questions in the international and domestic community over whether General Than Shwe will really strip off his uniform and leave the political scene.
Is this reshuffle in preparation for the elections, given that both Prime Minister Thein Sein and General Shwe Mann have retired?
That is true. This plan has been hatched since early 2009 – General Thein Sein was stripped off his army uniform and appointed as the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chairman to compete among the civilians. For General Shwe Mann, I think is more likely they will appoint him as a vice-president, to be elected by the 25 percent of military representatives in the parliaments. Those who are to hold 25 percent of seats in the parliament technically don’t have to be only from the military – civilians can be also appointed there too. So it is still unclear whether General Shwe Mann was simply just retired from the army or whether he is being kept as an auxiliary. If [the retirement] was to keep him as an auxiliary, we can say he will still have power in the military although he is no longer wearing his uniform.
Do you think their new positions are secure?
I can see that the junta is appointing someone who can be their puppet to become the Defence Chief. Than Shwe and Maung Aye, as I said before, had their Plan A, B and C lined up already and now they are likely to just stick to plans A and B. Like I said before, the question is whether Than Shwe will remain [in power] in the same way as Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, Deng Xiaoping in China or Kim Jong-Il in North Korea who stayed as “the leader” of the country without holding any president or prime minister positions.
Can you tell us about the newly appointed SPDC leaders: General Thura Myint Aung, Lt-Gen Ko Ko and Lt-Gen Min Aung Hlaing?
Myint Aung is a graduate from the [Defense Services Academy] intake 18. He won his Thura [senior military appointment] medal for his performance with the Light Infantry Brigade [LIB] 2 in the battle of Maethawaw, Karen state, in 1983 and 1984. After 1988, he was appointed commander of the LIB-35 based in Tharawaddy [Pegu division]. Afterwards he became the dean at the Defence Services Academy and then appointed as the strategic commander of the Military Operations Command 13 in Bokpyin, Tenasserim division. He is well known for his brutal methods in the operation on Christie Islands which I was also involved in. After that, he was promoted as the commander of Light Infantry Division [LID] 22 in Hpa-an, Karen state. And after that, he became the Southeastern Regional Military Commander in Moulmein. Then he was in Bassein before being promoted as the adjutant general.
What about the two other men promoted to senior positions, Lt-Gen Ko Ko and Lt-Gen Min Aung Hlaing?
They are both DSA graduates. Lt-Gen Ko Ko was the General Staff Officer Grade I of the Burmese army under Senior General Than Shwe around 1998 to 1999 when I was working in the Defence Service Office. Later, he became the chief of staff.
Lt-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is a graduate of DSA intake 19. He served in a battalion under the LID-88 in the early years. So he is born from LID-88, known to have close ties with Than Shwe. All three of them are of a good age and they had fresh ideas and opinions when we talked – they expressed dislike over the way things happened during the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP)-era and also with the methods being practiced by the military regime. They are the soldiers who want to see change in Burma.
Senior General Than Shwe is now in his late-70s and the new officers are in their mid-50s, so they are different generations. Will this make any difference to their way of thinking?
I personally believe that they are holding in their heart an ambition for change. But on the other hand, Than Shwe is not looking to change and there are people like Thein Sein and Shwe Mann who’ll take positions as the president and the prime minister. They have to follow their master’s order so they are in no position to bring any change. However, they are likely to quickly initiate the change at one point when a chance is created. Ko Ko and Min Aung Hlaing were among those who supported the brutal crackdown against monk-led protests in September 2007.
Thura Myint Aung, when he was young, had a habit of following whatever order he was given, such as to kill. But now, he understands the situation going on in the country; that changes need to happen and that the Tatmadaw will have to cooperate with the civilians. One thing I can say for sure is that these men don’t want to cooperate with such a country as North Korea. They know that our neighbouring countries such as China, India and Thailand are bullying us and becoming rich by sucking dry all the natural resources in our country.
We learnt that General Ye Myint [MAS chief] was among those reshuffled. How do you think the new government will handle Burma’s ceasefire groups and the issue of the Border Guard Forces?
I think Ye Myint already knew that he was going to be moved. He gave his last words [as MAS chief] to the ceasefire groups, telling them they would go back to pre-ceasefire days. So the ceasefire groups will have to talk with the new government leaders. Chances of fighting will depend on how they [ethnic ceasefire groups] get along with the [new officials]. I think the fighting, if it occurs, will not happen until the elections are over. After the fall of [former PM] Khin Nyunt [in 2004] the junta completely changed its policy with the ceasefire groups. Before, there was no instruction such as the Border Guard Force [BGF] transformation for the ceasefire groups. But now that General Ye Myint and his crew are gone, I think the issue with the ceasefire groups will wait for talks with the new government.
So nothing will happen if the ceasefire groups refuse the BGF transformation on 1 September?
That is correct, nothing will happen. The junta may show its troops around in the ceasefire group’s areas to scare them but they will not launch the actual attack. The junta will likely mobilise their troops in areas such as the New Mon State Party [NMSP] territory as the group is not too strong and there is no significant pressure from Thailand. However in territories of groups such as the Wa, the Mongla and the Kachin Independence Army [KIA], I don’t see that the junta will do the same thing because it has just reshuffled its commanders and they will not be ready to initiate a military offence straight away.
What kind of effects do you think the army reshuffle will bring to the people of Burma?
In my opinion, there will be no effect for the people. The junta force-approved the constitution in a referendum right after cyclone Nargis hit. The intention with the election is to materialise that constitution. It doesn’t matter whether people vote in the elections or not, the junta will get it over with their own people and become the new government.
One problem the junta is facing now is about the legitimacy. They need support from the international community to attain social standing but now most countries including the US are not giving them recognition. The SPDC may be able to force the elections to go ahead but they would still be just an unrecognised government born of worthless elections. There may be some easing with business regulations [by the new government] but I don’t see there will be any other significant changes in the next four or five years.